SHIFT: Why Facebook's vanity URLs are bad news for the Internet

Did you sit by your computer late on Friday, June 12 in order to pounce on the perfect Facebook vanity user name? According to the company, half a million people signed up for user names that will appear in their Facebook page's URL in the first 15 minutes they were available. I managed to grab "sekramer" without incident that evening. Though I made sure to get my user name, and gently reminded some of my less Web-savvy buddies to do the same, I don't exactly approve of the company's new user-name scheme. Read why after the Continue jump.


SEO: A Primer

When Facebook announced the new URL-based user names, it wrote, "People can enter a Facebook username as a search term on Facebook or a popular search engine like Google, for example, which will make it much easier for people to find friends with common names." In other words, the move towards user names is good for your SEO. The abbreviation "SEO" is Web-developer jargon for search engine optimization, the art of getting your website to show up higher on Google than someone else's. For example, if you give guitar lessons, how do you get your website to get better placement on a Google search for "guitar lessons" than your neighbor's music-lesson website? Well, you could make sure that you offer the best lessons in the country, spend years growing a business and gathering positive press. Or you could just learn how to improve your website's value in the eyes of the crawlers that do Google's dirty work.

Gaming Google is an art, not a science. Google and other search engines are notoriously cagey about their ranking algorithms because they want their sites to come up with the best possible natural results, not just the websites that have paid SEO consultants the most money. SEO has become big business — statistics show that people rarely read beyond the first few results of any search, so ranking high in a search has obvious value.


How Search Works

In the early days of search, engines would look for the website that used a word the most frequently to come up with its search results. Google's original claim to fame was valuing incoming links more than keyword repetition. That's why if you search for the word "here" (or "click here"), the first result is the website for Adobe Reader. How many times have you seen a website encourage you to click here to download Adobe Reader if you don't have it already? Those incoming links lend Adobe authenticity. But incoming links are just one of many measures Google uses to decide what you'll see first when you enter a query. Google also looks for keywords in the websites' URLs. So a search engine is going to like http://Facebook.com/john_smith better than http://Facebook.com/12345, with the words John Smith written in the text on the page.


SEO for Good and Evil

If you do offer guitar lessons (and good ones!), then using basic SEO lessons to help people find you is a public service — search engines actually want Web developers to help them index the Internet effectively. If, however, your website is more of a link farm that offers nothing to the world but a list of keywords and Google ads, then you're gaming the system and wasting people's time. Shame on you. On my homemade good/evil scale, Facebook's new user names fall somewhere higher than "click farm" but somewhere well below "service to the community."


The New Internet

Facebook vanity URLs may have marginal use for you if you don't want to make your own website, but want to be able to tell friends where they can find you online easily (if you managed to nab Facebook.com/JohnSmith, then congratulations). But they're really good for Facebook.

Facebook has more than 200 million users. Many businesses, small and large, maintain profiles as there as well. If you're looking for the Super Ice Cream Shoppe, Anywhere U.S.A., would you rather that its website came up first in a search, or its Facebook page? Probably the former. But Facebook's revenue stream comes from advertising — the more frequently the company's pages rise to the top, the more money it makes. Hence the move towards better SEO, which could generate millions more clicks per day for the company.

Facebook is not the only offender. LinkedIn, Twitter and Digg, among others, already use your user name in their URLs. Facebook may have been compelled to add vanity user names just to compete (side note: follow us at Twitter.com/dvice).

But is this what we want the Net to look like? When you search for someone, or something, do you really want Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to come up first in every search, or are you really looking for news items, old sports stats, blog entries — the diverse, often random, sometimes surprising content that makes up the Internet? All these social-networking profiles strike me as very corporate and homogeneous, without always being particularly useful. You may find someone's Facebook profile through Google, only to find that the user restricts who can see it. So while vanity URLs may have advantages for users, I don't like the strategy behind them. Perhaps Google, Yahoo, Bing and others should tweak their algorithms so keywords in URLs don't affect search results quite so much. But it's a war of attrition: when search engines change their indexing strategies, Facebook and others will think of different ways to drive tons of traffic, preferably through the front page of Google.